The Memo: Should legal rights be given to animals, species and places?

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The fight for Nature’s Rights: Should legal rights be given to animals, species and places?

Sose Ebodaghe – 15 January 2024

Anyone who’s kept half an eye on the news over the last few years will know that against a backdrop of socio-political turmoil, the climate crisis rages on. But an aspect you might not be so familiar with is the call for legal rights and political representation to be granted to the environment around us and the non-human entities that exist within it, such as animals and trees.

It’s undeniable that there are significant aspects of the current climate crisis that are caused by us directly, acts like deforestation and the destruction of rivers, and the resulting loss in biodiversity has caused the health of our environment to degenerate quicker than even environmentalists could have anticipated. What’s more, for many people, the laws being passed to protect it are missing the mark, because they’re working on the defensive - mitigating but not resolving the deterioration of our planet. Part of this comes from the fact that our approach to the environment around us is largely exploitative. It is about treating the world as a resource, rather than a habitat. Exploiting its resources as much as possible to gain as much as we can. It is a far cry from the way that indigenous communities worldwide see the natural world, and belief systems that see humans as a part of Nature have a far greater understanding and sensitivity toward our own impact on it.

One of the most fundamental (and under-utilised) ways that we can protect Nature (capitalized as a proper noun to signify its importance to us as humans) is through legislation. The UN movement ‘Rights of Nature’ – which is recognized in at least 12 countries including Canada, Mexico, and the US – was introduced to encourage government dialogue, political and organizational support, and funding to support the shift towards more Earth-centered approaches within our legal systems.

While legal dialogue around Nature rights has been around for some time, courts in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, India, and New Zealand, to name a few, have moved to recognise the legal rights of animals and landscapes, ranging from ecosystems to rivers. Entities such as trade unions, states, and corporations, all have duties not to violate the rights of others and there are rights to litigate under the law if they are harmed. One landmark case of this kind was that of the North Island Māori tribe in New Zealand, who gained formal legal recognition for their river as their kin in 2017. This meant that if the river was mistreated or harmed, it would equate to physical harm to the tribe themselves in law.

Even now, a potential precedent-setting case is on the horizon as More Than Human Rights (Moth) - an organization that works to initiate a legal debate around Nature’s rights - is trying to provide creative rights for the Los Cedros cloud forest in Ecuador. The forest – already considered an entity with legal rights – starred in Song of the Forest alongside British musician Cosmo Sheldrake, which uses the voices of trees, birds, and other assorted animals combined with Sheldrake’s own words. Sheldrake is also currently working alongside Earth Percent, a company campaigning to recognize Earth as a stakeholder in the creation of music. If Sheldrake is successful, this would extend the domain of intellectual property rights to nonhuman entities, a historical decision that could change the future of legal personhood as we know it, so keep an eye out for the ruling of this case come next year.


If you're interested, you can read more about environment law here.